How to Talk to Ghosts

I. The Ghost

You should know three things about Chinese ghosts.

One: They are victims of bad death.

We must distinguish ghosts (gui) from spirits. Spirits are benevolent. Our ancestors watch over us from above, accept our sacrifices, and stay obediently rooted to their burial tablets. But to both the early Chinese of the Western Han and the Neo-Confucian scholars of the Song Dynasty, ghosts did not go peacefully into the afterworld. They died unjustly and prematurely. Early Chinese texts are filled with instructions for rituals to appease the resentful ghosts who inflicted demonic energies on the living, and early China was a deeply haunted world.

Two: They are keepers of history.

In almost every dynasty that succeeds a fallen one, huaigu stories tell of ghosts linked to the forgotten kingdom. They appear at ancient ruins, wandering about palaces that no longer exist, often taking form as pale women pacing through tall grasses grown over powdered bones and buried fragrances. They sing and beckon to visitors. They tell of a secret, hidden, unwanted history.

The Chinese Communist Party understands this well. It is terrified of superstition. The first decades of the PRC saw a literal campaign against ghosts, against ghost literature and ghost operas, including a crackdown on a 1961 Peking-opera production that dared to proclaim: “There’s no harm in speaking of ghosts.”¹

Three: They obey no boundaries.

It is a great lie of Chinese culture that ghosts may be trapped in one place. Our ancestors tried to entice them to stay inside their tombs with offerings of favorite foods, books, and clothes; they chanted exhortations to force the ghosts to remain underground where they belonged. Ancient texts—the Liji and the Book of Liezi—defined “gui” as those who must return, who sought a way to their true home.

We thought of ghosts as tethered to bones and tombs.

The diaspora proved this wrong. They crossed the oceans with us.

II. The Haunting

How does it feel to be haunted by family you have never met?

Have you ever sat in a silent room with a fading photo album in your lap trying to imagine voices you’ve never heard coming out of faces you’ve never really seen?

But first—theory. (Let us step away from personal narrative for a moment, which is unverifiable and easily dismissed, and speak an academic language that skeptics will understand.) Hauntology is not a new concept in Western philosophy. It is a rather old tool popularized by Jacques Derrida in Spectres de Marx, which argues that the ghost of Marxism will still shake the world even after the fall of Marxist states. Derrida’s specter, as Hagglund interprets Derrida, “has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet.”² Hauntology, then, describes a concern “with apparitions, visions, and representations that mediate the sensuous and the non-sensuous, visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, reality, and not-yet-reality, being and non-being.”³

Please note: it is not necessary that you believe in ghosts per se. Hauntology has since been used by psychoanalysis, critical theorists, and literary critics to discuss the spectres haunting music, cinema, fiction, political institutions, and history. Fredric Jameson, perhaps, puts this notion best: “Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist…all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”4

In short: that which no longer exists exudes its influence on us nonetheless. They move us through absence. Be careful, or the specter might rip the rug out from under you.

Derrida made hauntology known, but psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Took preceded Derrida in their analysis of hauntology as a framework for transgenerational communication—that is, “the way in which the undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes.5 For Abraham and Took, the phantom is a liar. Its aim is to keep its traumatic and shameful past shrouded in mystery, to deceive the haunted subject.

Here I diverge from Abraham and Took. My secrets were not shrouded by the phantom. They were concealed by the living.

My parents tried to silence our ghosts. They were not alone in this. For many immigrants, Chinese or otherwise, the journey across the Pacific represents a clean break with the past as much as it is a chance to escape. This was especially true for those who fled Communist China, where Mao’s Red Army had destroyed the history both physically and literally. Burn the Four Olds. Purge yourself of the poison of Confucianism and hang the thought traitors. Everything that precedes Mao will become ash. The immigrant’s link to Old China was already weak, tainted with torture, and it was so easy to cut it off completely.

“The Chinese I know hide their names,” writes Maxine Hong Kingston in Woman Warrior; “sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.”

So I grew up in a Western silo. My parents didn’t speak of life in China, and any questions were met with a stony silence. My mother coached me never to speak of the Party, never to write anything online about its oppressive regime, because even thousands of miles away she was still afraid that someone was listening.

I believe this kind of historical suppression is a kind of self-induced amnesia, a psychic protective shield of immigrants. Better to let the past slip away into the horizon during the journey to the West. Better to raise children to be ignorant of their escaped futures. The mental burden of trauma is too great.

“I heard she killed herself,” said my mother when she saw me walking around the house with Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. “Stop reading that. Put that down or their ghosts will drag you down, too.”

Why do you think that so many personal narratives of World War II are recounted between grandparent and grandchild? Research indicates that the transmission skips a generation. The first generation is too entrenched in the past to forget. The third generation needs to know. The second needs to escape.

But if hauntology tells us anything it is that the specter cannot be escaped. Derrida compels us to speak to the specter as an ethical injunction; the specter “occupies the place of the Levinasian Other: a wholly irrecuperable intrusion in our world,” and we are responsible for preserving its otherness.6 Whether we want it to speak or not, the specter makes itself known.

The clearest indication of a ghost is in what is not. Look for the blank spots.

For example: My father’s name in Chinese is Er Jia. “Er” means second. This naming convention means that there should be a Yi Jia. “Yi” means first. Where is my uncle? Why don’t I know him?

For example: Who and where are my great grandparents? My classmates can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower. Why can’t I?

For example: Why does my kindergarten family tree project look so bare compared to my classmates’?

For example: What happened to the cousins in Cambodia?

For example: What happened to the cousins in Cambodia?

Entire branches of my family are simply missing. No one would tell me why. I thought this was normal.

Once I was older, once I could see the outline of what was not, I could look for the Other that filled the space. I saw its face in the stories that my parents would tell me. My father, learning to read English in his dirt-floor classroom, pushed unfamiliar syllables through his tongue by repeating the sentence: “Long live Chairman Mao. Long live Chairman Mao.” My father, a literary man, thought that George Orwell’s Animal Farm was appropriate bedtime reading for a five-year-old. My father, looking at my dormitory poster of the man facing down the tanks at Tiananmen Square, murmured quietly, “I was there.”

You stop the haunting through a conjuring. We already know this from every Hollywood ghost story. The specter can be dealt with only in one way: to give it being, to make it heard and seen.

Our parents would have us forget. But we had to go digging.

III. The Conjuring

How do you preserve a memory? You carve it into your flesh. You gouge the old wounds open and you make the blood flow again, because you are the generation removed from violence and remembrance is your duty. (Derrida’s successors write of haunting as a nostalgia for lost futures. That is, possibilities that never were. He doesn’t write about the nostalgia for futures escaped.)

How do I speak to the ghosts of my father’s classmates mowed down by the tanks at Tiananmen Square? How do I speak to the ghosts of my uncles, aunts, and cousins killed by Pol Pot’s soldiers in Cambodia? Of my great-grandparents murdered by Mao’s red terrors?

You fabulate their testimony. Here I join a long tradition of Asian American authors who found that spinning lies was the only way to tell the truth. Read Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior to understand her use of talk-story, a method of genuinely recounting the traumatic past by wrapping it in myth and fabulation. Read John Okada, author of No-No Boy, who wrote in a 1956 letter to his publisher: “This is a story which has never been told in fiction and only in fiction can the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of people be adequately recorded.”

I am by training a historian, but it feels terribly disingenuous to write my ghosts as history. To transcribe literally their experiences would not only feel cold and clinical, it would ring sparse. There are too many details we don’t have access to. But if I spin their lives into stories then I can give voice to the frustration, despair, terror, relief, and pain.

This is something more than recalling fact. This requires setting, orientation, and mood. This requires: “the impulse to recall what has vanished from a place, to fill in what is missing or concealed from view at a spot.”7

That is the moment when the ghost seizes you. It is miserable. To write good fiction you have to replay it all in your head and see it happening not to them but to you. Two years ago in December when I was drafting The Poppy War I spent hours each day on the floor crying because I had to write the chapter about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and I could only do it sentences at a time until it become too much.

One anecdote from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking continues to haunt me. Two little girls ran to hide when Japanese soldiers came to their door. The older sister wasn’t fast enough. The younger one hid on a bed under thick blankets and listened as her jiejie was raped and murdered. Frightened, confused, she stayed hidden so long under the covers that the blankets slowly smothered her and she spent the rest of her life with brain damage.

I have a younger sister. I wrote only a single paragraph that week.

The secondary pain comes from how to conclude the narrative once you’ve felt it. This was an era devoid of hope. What good does it do to tell it again? How do you infuse light, love, joy, hope into a story when you already know how it ends?

Do you just write to make the world feel their pain? I used to think that was my answer. I used to write with a misguided sense of rage. The Nanjing Massacre was the forgotten Holocaust of the West, is still denied by prominent academics, and I wanted to flash those atrocities into unwilling eyes.

But now I choose to believe that our ghosts are not truly malevolent in death. To me they are still the quintessential Chinese relative who zips your coat up before you go out, presses a hot cup of tea into your hands when you come back in, who pats your cheek and tells you to eat more while simultaneously telling you to lose weight. They don’t want to inflict pain. They want to be remembered. They want to fill the blanks with a smiling face, so uncannily familiar and like my own.

IV. The Intruder

I didn’t want to write this next section but right now I think I must. So far we have spoken of things sacred, of intimate family traumas, of whispers across generations. Now we must address the interloper.

Are you beginning to understand why you are not wanted?

Let us return to that tired conversation that made its rounds this winter. Stop trying to censor our work. If you are this bothered then don’t read what offends you. Stop hoarding cultural stories as if they are your own.

But who are you to speak to our ghosts? How can you understand them? Do you understand now the pain it causes to see our ghosts shoddily captured, distorted, forced to say words they otherwise never would? You spit on their memories. You dare.

Who are you to describe a haunting when the fingers of the specter have never touched you?

Our criticism is not censorship. We are begging you—look at the ghosts, they are screaming, let them talk. But you have not faithfully recorded their testimony, you have turned them into kitsch. You have done something worse than silence them—you have transformed them into an image of you. Look through your words for our memories and you are looking in a mirror.

Ask yourself, dear intruder: why are you drawn to profit off of our pain?

The response will of course be an accusation of territoriality. You cannot hoard your own culture, you cannot cut off a sympathetic outsider from empathizing with your history. But I will guard my ghosts jealously. It took me long enough to learn to hear them. For now, at least, the duty of the outsider should simply be to listen.

V. The Sweeping of the Tomb

Qingming Jie, The Tomb-Sweeping Festival, falls in early April. Every year millions of Chinese migrate across or into the country and return to their family tombs. We light firecrackers, press our foreheads to the ground, and murmur our respects. We burn them paper money—White Money, lower in value although they do not know that—paper furniture, paper clothes, paper books, and the smoke delivers these goods to the afterlife where spirits will receive them. It is a safe relationship; bilateral, predictable, reciprocal, devoid of mystery.

This is how you sacrifice to an ancestral spirit. How do you sacrifice to a ghost?

This year I will burn an empty book. I will picture the ghost seated at a writing desk identical to my own, a shadow version of my library carrel. I will see them pick up a brush with spectral fingers as together we sit down to write.

Come in, I will say. Take my mouth, take my fingers, and let us talk.


¹Judith Zeitlin, The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature, (University of Hawai’i Press, 2007): 6.

² Martin Hagglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, (Stanford University Press, 2008), 82.

³ M. Lincoln and B. Lincoln, “Toward a critical hauntology: Bare afterlife and the ghosts of ba chúc,” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 57 no. 1 (2015), 191-220.

4 Fredric Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, in Ghostly Demarcations, Verso (1999), 39.

Colin Davis, “Hauntology, spectres and phantoms,” French Studies, vol. 59 no. 3 (1 July 2005).

Davis, “Hauntology, Spectres, and Phantoms.”

Zeitlin, 89.


R.F. Kuang

R.F. Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. Her debut novel The Poppy War (Harper Voyager, May) is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at

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